The Gift

You Need to Give the World Something

A Child Across the Sky "The world doesn’t need anything from you, but you need to give the world something. That’s why you’re alive. Kill yourself now, and you’re proving the majority right—you’re no different from the billion other skulls under the ground. Give it something, no matter how short- or long-lasting, and you’ve won."

From A Child Across the Sky by Jonathan Carroll

Reading is a Debt We Owe to a Collective

Junot Díaz discussing his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, on KCRW’s Bookworm:

A book is a gift. No matter how poorly written it is, or if we don’t like it—we think it’s simplistic or if we find it to be odious—someone did spend time working on this. Someone did take a part of their lives to make this happen. Even in the most kind of nonsense, banal books there is a note of grace in it…As a kid, I was just reading. And I never lost that sense that sometimes there are terrible books which for me produce really pleasing results in my mind and in my heart. And sometimes there are incredibly brilliant books that don’t do any of that. And I think I had to have a much more generous sense of what reading means and what it can do.

If you think about it, curses are narratives. They’re narratives that bind us and follow us. They’re shadows that even when we think we’ve escaped them, they’re there. History follows the same pattern. We can deny all the history we want and yet history will still reach up across time and shape our choices or behavior and our possibilities. And I think that it’s hard to be a person and not want to be independent from all those invisible forces that we can’t even begin to grasp. Through the tales that we tell ourselves, the ones that exclude those invisible forces—whether it’s history, curses, our ancestors, our parents, our earlier selves—are those stories more worthy, are they more beneficial than the stories that accept this, that embrace this, that in some ways make it deterministic—in other words, that we are cursed. Which is the better, more productive, more human story? We’re cursed or there are no such things as curses?

Junot DíazIn the end, why is it that it’s okay for me to have been a little person and I’ll use that to explain my world and to be like, this is why I act this way and this is why I resist and this is why I’ve struggled so hard. But what’s always extraordinary is that we’re usually not very tolerant of other small lives, even if our lives have been small. Sometimes we’ll be tolerant of a small life and the next thing we know, we’re no longer tolerant. One of the thing Oscar’s character keeps asking is, Is being human something that you do once—you make one choice and it proves that you’re human—or is it a choice you have to keep making through your whole life? And what an incredible struggle, what an incredible challenge, what a journey that is.

What I want is people to read and remember that reading, while we may practice alone, in solitude, it arose out of a collective learning and out of a collective exchange…Return to the notion that it’s not just you, a monk alone in a chamber. That it’s you reading out of a collective, from a collective. I love that idea because I never forgot how I learned to read…With a group of people, with teachers. I learned to read in Kindergarten when I first moved to the United States, watching other kids make mistakes, do things right, and having access to a group of teachers who were committed at that moment. And in It’s a Wonderful Life, do you remember the husband of the teacher who punches [Jimmy Stewart] goes, “My wife taught your children to read.” And it is a debt. Reading is a debt we owe to a collective, while we may practice it alone.


A Gift and a Commodity

Jonathan Lethem talking with Michael Silverblatt (KCRW's Bookworm, 7/19/07) about his latest work, You Don't Love Me Yet:

What bothers me about plagiarism is not that I don’t believe there can be such a thing. Anyone can identify the fringe activity where something is appropriated joylessly and unimaginatively and deceptively. And we can all condemn that very easily. But what fascinates me is that people work so hard to ignore the resemblance between that activity and what artists do routinely, necessarily all the time in their procedure which is grab on to stuff, move it around, transform it. And when the same thing is done and value is added and influence is acknowledged, well this is culture making. It's not some minority activity, this is culture making at its most central. This is what people do.

It's not that an act of art making is either a commodity transaction or a gift transaction—to use Lewis Hyde's vocabulary, the author of The Gift—but that it’s innately both. If I do what I do—do what I mean to do—when I offer a book into the world, sure I’d like to get paid. But if it’s any good at all, I hope to transmit something far more valuable than the $23.95 you’ve shelled out at the bookstore. I want it to sink into you and become a part of you and trouble you. It’s something I could never ideally be repaid for and I wouldn’t want to try. So it’s a gift and a commodity at the same moment. And this is what artists do.